Body image, in most modern definitions, involves two key elements: a mental picture of one’s physical body (including size, shape, and appearance), and one’s attitude toward the physical self (such as thoughts, feelings and beliefs about one’s body). Body image can be influenced by a number of social factors, such as culture, the media, and interactions with family and friends. It often adapts to reflect new information, people, and experiences.
A negative or unhealthy body image can contribute to low self-esteem and cause persistent anxiety. In extreme cases, it can interfere with daily well-being. A mental health professional may be able to help explore and address these body image concerns.
POSITIVE VS. NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE
Most people have experienced the desire to modify some aspect of their appearance. They may dislike the color of their hair, the size of their nose, or the presence of a scar. But in many cases, these perceived imperfections do not create significant anxiety and have little impact on a person’s overall sense of self. Individuals who accept their bodies without dwelling on perceived flaws can be said to have a generally positive body image.
According to Ondina Hatvany, LMFT, a "healthy body image means you are comfortable with the body you have. It does not mean you think your body is perfect, rather, that you accept it and commit to loving and caring for it."
Meanwhile, a negative or unhealthy body image involves a preoccupation with one’s perceived flaws. Individuals may experience shame or even disgust around their appearance. Some may go to unusual lengths to alter or hide their bodies, even at the expense of their own well-being.
All that said, body image is not typically something neatly categorized into one of two boxes. Body image is generally experienced along a continuum. Most individuals experience different degrees of positive and negative feelings about their bodies at different times.
HOW MEDIA CAN AFFECT BODY IMAGE
Television, advertisements, Instagram influencers, and other media can all have a powerful impact on how people regard their bodies. Hatvany says, “You only have to turn the TV on for five minutes to hear the message that if we look a certain way, we too can have that stellar-looking partner hanging off our arm or that perfect dream job. In fact, all we have to do is buy the advertised shampoo, get the right hair, attain the correct weight, and all the love, success, and glory we desire will follow!”
These messages may be harmful because the standards of physical attractiveness portrayed by the media may not be attainable by everyone. A person can dye their hair or attain a more toned physique at the gym. Yet other characteristics, such as facial structure or height, may be more difficult to change. Costly procedures may be required in order to do so.
Research has linked social media use to body dissatisfaction across all cultures and genders. Even short periods of use can have an effect. For example, a 2018 study asked women to find and interact with the social media accounts of someone they considered more attractive than themselves. A control group did the same for family members. The first group reported a reduced body image after only 5 minutes of interaction, even if their body image was low to begin with. The control group saw no change.
This and other research suggest social media platforms by themselves do not cause poor body image. Instead, it’s the ease with which people can compare their looks with others that can be damaging. Most individuals only see their friends’ most flattering photos on social media, but they see their own, unfiltered appearance every day. Some people then conclude that they are the only ones with skin blemishes or stomach rolls, when in fact these are present in many, if not most, people.
Body Image and Gender
Around 80% of women in America are dissatisfied with their bodies. Women tend to report greater concern about facial features, weight, body shape, breasts, thighs, and buttocks. Lesbian women are at less risk of body image issues than their heterosexual peers.
Meanwhile, 34% of men have low body image. They are generally more concerned about height, muscle definition, and signs of thinning hair. Gay and bisexual men are three times more likely than straight men to have body image issues.
Although the media often places more emphasis on the ideal female form, an increasing number of ads and images also feature what is considered an ideal male physique. Interestingly, this heightened focus on standards of male attractiveness coincides with an increase in the number of men who experience negative body image. Men have also opted to modify their features with cosmetic surgery in greater numbers than they have in the past.
Body Image and Age
Children can start developing poor body image as young as 6 years old. Girls and boys tend to have similar body image until ages 12, after which girl’s self-evaluations drop. In general, body satisfaction is lowest between ages 12 and 15, when puberty causes both physical and emotional changes.
Most studies of body image and aging focus on women, though men can experience aging-related insecurities as well. An individual’s body image seems to stay relatively stable during the adult years. However, the focus of worries may shift over time.
A 2013 study compared levels of “fat talk” and “old talk” across a lifespan. (Fat talk involves criticism of body shape; old talk critiques signs of aging.) Fat talk decreased with age, while old talk increased. However, many of the eldest participants still worried about their weight, and nearly half of the youngest age group worried about signs of aging.
BODY IMAGE AND SELF-ESTEEM
Body image and self-esteem are related but distinct concepts. Body image describes one's attitude toward a single aspect of the self, namely the physical body. Self-esteem relates to one's view of the self as a whole. Self-esteem involves an evaluation of one's overall worth and is generally not limited to the physical body. Nevertheless, the way people think and feel about their bodies is often strongly connected to their overall view of themselves.
A number of studies, conducted across various age groups, have consistently demonstrated that higher self-esteem is linked to a more positive body image. Meanwhile lower self-esteem is associated with a more negative body image. However, research has not yet determined the direction of the relationship. The excessive self-criticism that comes with poor self-esteem can lower body image. Likewise, a negative body image might distract people from other personal strengths, leading to low self-esteem. Most researchers agree both possibilities are plausible.
Despite the strong association between self-esteem and body image, a decline in one’s body image does not necessarily produce a corresponding change in self-esteem. The extent to which one’s self-esteem is built on a broad base as opposed to a narrow base is an important moderating factor.
A narrow basis for self-esteem exists "when your self-esteem is based solely on one thing, such as how you look or how much you weigh. With such a narrow base, your self-esteem is much more vulnerable to collapse," Hatvany explains. "On the other hand, a wide basis for self-esteem exists when there are other qualities that form a foundation for your self-esteem. These qualities might include your fabulous personality, your talents and gifts, your smile, your contribution to your community, your culture etc. When you have a number of different things that you value about yourself, your view of yourself will also be more stable, steady, and solid."
If you are struggling with body image issues or low self-esteem, a compassionate therapist can offer support. Therapy is a place to get help without stigma or judgment.
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